In our four-part series on student internships, Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) members explore the benefits, pitfalls, best practices and methods for engaging the next generation of students to build a successful student internship program.
Adriel Michaud is president of Top Draw, a company founded by CEO Ken Jurina, an Entrepreneur's Organization (EO) member in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. We asked Adriel to share his experiences in creating a thriving student internship program. Here's what he had to say:
Establishing a pipeline for sharp, young talent is a competitive edge in the ever-changing digital market, and a common way to attract fresh skills and perspectives to a digital agency is through internships. Though it seems like a logical pairing, the idea is sometimes met with negative reactions, despite being both a win for employers and a pivotal stepping stone for students and new grads.
Our team makes a habit of proving the cynics wrong. We attract and keep young talent with unconventional practices. We have to, given that the boom in demand has outpaced the supply of digital skills in northern Canada's rapidly emerging digital space.
Turns out, making the most of an interns' eagerness to contribute is a key differentiator for our work, too. Here's how we're breaking the stigma and creating legendary internships:
Building the Right Infrastructure
Nothing is worse than placing an intern in the corner until the summer ends. We've hired interns who've experienced this in the past, and they're shocked to find themselves making a legitimate contribution to our agency on day one―not because the role or expectations changed, but because our infrastructure allows them the freedom to test their skills and fail safely.
Our secret sauce is to bake-in all aspects of the job. An internship with us is the same as the customary three-month probationary period for any new hire. It's theirs to grow into, to succeed in, and though we hope it won't happen―ultimately, to screw up.
Another important factor: We pay them real money. What's real money? It's not experience, and it's not just a reference. We pay our interns above minimum wage, and it's worth noting that Alberta has the second-highest minimum wage in Canada. We also pay for overtime, training time, time for networking outside of the office, and time for their coaching and one-on-ones with mentors. As many digital agencies are startups or private businesses expanding quickly, paying our interns is an important choice in a market plagued by "five-month, $500" and "volunteer status" internships.
Creating an Engaging Culture
We want our interns to love working here so they'll tell their friends and stay for years. And we make it worth their while. Not just through perks and pay or buying a round of drinks once in a while, but by creating an engaging culture they want to come back to every day.
We start with removing the anxiety of wondering how they're doing by making feedback rapid, in real time and with an everyday vernacular. We recognize wins in public and provide other feedback in private―as driven by the needs and interests of the intern.
We don't jam performance evaluations down their throats. Instead, we empower them to choose a mentor―or several―that they believe can help them achieve their goals. The interns drive the conversation based on what they want to know and when they want to know it. We strongly encourage our interns to meet with mentors at least once a week; we pay for the Starbucks' session, the time spent chatting, and the gas or Uber there and back.
We offer perks, too, including unlimited snacks, pop and most importantly, beer. But again, interns choose their preferred perks. That way, the yogis get their yoga, and brew-philes get their craft beer―according to individual preference.
But the main cultural benefit we offer is the empowerment of staff to truly manage their own performance, coaching and feedback. We've learned that this gives those who are eager to improve the best chance to thrive.
Placing Learning in the Hands of the Student
As an intern, there's much to learn and multiple ways to learn it. To accommodate different learning styles, we put the student in the heart of the experience and let them solve their own problems, using their preferred method.
That means our interns can slice off a new experience anyway they want. They drive the pace and scope of their own learning. For those who learn best from videos or lectures, we offer appropriate resources for reference along with support documents.
For those who learn by doing, there's sample work, team support and templates to work from. The point is, intern or not, all people learn in different ways. We've found that the best way we can support that is to provide the most effective tools for the task. When you put the level of involvement in the hands of the intern, more often than not they will own it and surprise you with their results.